Bill Bruford Moves From Beats To Books The former drummer for Yes, King Crimson, and other groups is closing his public performance career with an autobiography.  He apologizes for not having stories of a troubled childhood, but does have tales of stage mishaps and innovations.
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Bill Bruford Moves From Beats To Books

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Bill Bruford Moves From Beats To Books

Bill Bruford Moves From Beats To Books

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Through much of its history, rock music's basic elements of harmony and rhythm have been pretty simple. But drummer Bill Bruford once told an interviewer: If pop music is three chords and four/four time, I'm always the guy who says what's the fourth chord, and what if we put it in five/four?

Bruford was one of the pioneers of progressive rock in the early 1970s. He was the original drummer of Yes.

(Soundbite of song, "Roundabout")

YES (Band): I'll be the roundabout. The words will make you out and out...

HANSEN: He recorded and toured for more than two decades with various incarnations of the group King Crimson.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: He traded drum licks with Phil Collins onstage with Genesis.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: And Bill Bruford had his own prolific solo career, often at the helm of his jazz-rock combo, Earthworks.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: Now, a book tells all about his four-decade-long, action-packed career. "Bill Bruford: The Autobiography" has been published by Jawbone Press, and he's in our New York bureau. Welcome to the program.

Mr. BILL BRUFORD (Musician): Hi, Liane. That was a great introduction.

HANSEN: Yeah, putting the music in helps. You know...

Mr. BRUFORD: Okay.

HANSEN: ...so we have an idea.

It's so interesting. Your autobiography begins with a reprint of a press release from your Summerfold Record label: Bill Bruford will no longer perform in public effective January 1st, 2009. And then you go on to write about like how many rockers soldier on, and how the record biz treats people like Peter Pan and that you're not allowed to grow old.

So what was it like for you when you made the decision to retire from public performances?

Mr. BRUFORD: Well, it's a shock, you know, when you've done something for 41 years and enjoyed it, it's of course a change. I still dabble in the music industry. I have other connections. But public performance, it's a shock to the system.

HANSEN: So in this idea of the press release when you talked about your retirement, you say it's someone else's turn. So the torch is being passed?

Mr. BRUFORD: Absolutely, the torch is being passed. I think, you know, every time my fat rear end is sat on a drum stool, you know, some 25-year-old's thin rear end isn't. And there's a sense in which I think the old guys, you know, the 70-year-old geriatric rockers, need to move over.

HANSEN: Well, your book is arranged around chapters like a series of frequently asked questions.

Mr. BRUFORD: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: You know, why did you leave Yes? Do you still like progressive rock? And given this is an autobiography, I mean what was your childhood like? What got you interested in music? You know, what kind of kid were you?

Mr. BRUFORD: It's funny, actually. One of the most-asked questions I get is: Did you write your own autobiography?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BRUFORD: Call me old-fashioned but that's what I thought autobiographies were. And you'll never believe this, but I didn't really realize that, you know, everything is ghostwritten these days. And I took a huge pleasure in writing the book. It was wonderful fun.

My own childhood was fine. You know, I really had nothing to complain about at all. I wish I could tell about, you know, a father who beat me, or endless poverty, or drugs. I came from, you know, a classically secure, professional, middle-class U.K. background. Not a lot of money around but everybody, my father and mother were adoring and intelligent, I think, and got me going on music.

It was their ballroom dancing. They loved ballroom dancing and I loved the way they did that.

HANSEN: Yeah. So they supported you at the time.

Mr. BRUFORD: Well, I'm not sure that I quite said that. When I announced I wanted to be a musician, they were a little nervous about that. You know, I'm not sure they'd ever met a musician. And they didn't quite know how that worked and they'd heard nasty things about, you know, rock and pop music. So they were just frightened. And I had to call them from college and say I was leaving. I'd only been there two months.

I was leaving to play with Yes at the Royal Albert Hall, supporting Cream. And they said what, what, and what to all that. And I said, well, you know, I'm going to do this. And in a typically pragmatic and very British middle-class way, when I turned up a couple of years later with a ton of gold records, somehow their opinion changed, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: You were one of the first high-profile users of electronic drums as they were being developed. You had a wall of these hexagonal pads at a reunion tour with Yes at Madison Square Garden, but things didn't go so well. You want to tell that story?

Mr. BRUFORD: That's a rough kind of story. Yeah. Yes, you know, it's the usual zoo. It's 20,000 people going nuts, and I happen to have probably the world's most expensive drum set. I imagine if Guinness Book of Records had been there it would have had an entry. It was two sort of state-of-the-art computers, but we're talking about 1992, somewhere around '91 may be. And these things were notoriously unstable and travelled particularly badly, which is why there were two. The idea being that if one packed up, the other one would probably be okay.

There was no good reason but my technician decided to power them down in the intermission. Came back up towards this huge arena, you know, it's like the Romans feeding the Christians to the lions, these things. And this guy says as I'm walking on stage, too late, he says, they ain't working, Bill. You know, I got no drums at all and it supposed to be a drum duet.

HANSEN: And you are with - what is it - Alan White?

Mr. BRUFORD: Yeah.

HANSEN: And he had his drum kit. So...

Mr. BRUFORD: Yes, he did. Alan White faced me about 20 paces away with an arsenal of kind of Howitzer-sounding, massive drums - acoustic that did work, I assure you.

HANSEN: So what happened? I mean...

Mr. BRUFORD: Well, I performed quite adequately, actually. I flailed away fairly uselessly at two acoustic cymbals and a hi-hat.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: So you had all of the most expensive drum kit. And you're using something that basically, I mean you might as well have had a bucket, right?

Mr. BRUFORD: Absolutely right. I had a bucket but it was a reasonable performance upon the bucket.

HANSEN: I'm speaking with drummer Bill Bruford about his autobiography.

We put out the word on Facebook and Twitter that we were going to be talking to you. And Clifford Allen from Austin, Texas, wants to know about your work with percussionist Jamie Muir in King Crimson.

Mr. BRUFORD: Well Jamie Muir was a great guy. He came from the free jazz scene of the day. Jamie was percussion in the sense that he was a terrific colorist and a kind of chaos merchant.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. BRUFORD: He was the wild card. He was the loose cannon. My job was to play a recognizable beat that you could conceivably tap your foot to.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. BRUFORD: And Jamie's job was probably to try and destroy it as best he could...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BRUFORD: ...if humanly possible. So you have a classic use of two drummers there; one the positive, creative energy and the other one the destructive one.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: What are you looking forward to most during your retirement from public performances?

Mr. BRUFORD: Well, a little light gardening conceivably, long walks, all the things that retirees do. I don't mean that I have my slippers on quite yet. I'm thoroughly enjoying a two- or three-year period where I am talking about this book and lecturing at all kinds of conservatories, drum places, and universities and colleges around the U.K. and here in North America. Thoroughly enjoying that and after a couple of years we'll see where we've got to.

HANSEN: That's musician Bill Bruford. His autobiography is titled, appropriately, "Bill Bruford: The Autobiography." And he joined us from our New York Bureau. Thank you so much.

Mr. BRUFORD: Thank you, Liane.

HANSEN: You can read an excerpt from Bill Bruford's autobiography and see a video of him playing electronic drums that work, on our website, NPRMusic.org.

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